The Ukrainian Hybrid Warfare And Neuroscience – Dismantling Some Facets Of The Psychosphere

Cristian Barna and Cosmin Dugan*


The goal of the paper is to establish to what extent military neuroscience plays a part (or can be used to explain some features) in the designing of the irregular (hybrid) warfare. Using the Eastern border of Ukraine and the Crimea crisis as the object of study, we question three facets of this type of confrontation. First, tailored propaganda that synergically combined classical themes with more advanced neuro-marketing-like features, persistently targeting different features of memories (real, idealized history, recycled themes from old soviet propaganda) from multiple media channels – TV, radio, social media – and by highlighting the efforts to strengthen Russian collective identity. The second issue brought into discussion refers to the manipulation of medical infrastructure, including the medical staff, facilities, drugs, knowledge of medical data (including general and targeted behavioral data – psychological, psychiatrical, neurological and endocrinological), etc., as a means to consolidate the control over civilian population, spreading false medical rumors, demonizing the opponent and creating data collection and influence networks. The last feature is probably the most important and controversial – the use of psychotropic substances or more advanced forms of psychological control combined with other means of manipulating external motivation (money, rewards, blackmail, citizenship, ideology, political and economic privileges, etc.) by un-conscripted individuals –“national rebels” (difficult to distinguish from mercenaries, delinquents, social outcasts, mentally ill) involved in a decentralized low intensity conflict, an intrinsic feature of irregular warfare. In the end, one of our conclusion is that the changing shape of the mind-based dimension (“psycho-sphere”) of future wars should have an adequate response in developing the medical intelligence studies, and especially the military neuroscience branch.

1.Conceptual framework

1.1. Theoretical approach

About geographical representations and frontier’s geography on the South East border of NATO. In the contemporary era we can no longer pretend we live within an isolated bastion. Globalization, migration, the informational environment, the technological advancement and commercial trades unite us, so as our actions determine an immediate impact upon others.

The historical fact that a state must possess vital space for development has allowed, in time, to offer an explanation for the emergence, enlargement, and decay of great empires, who had expansionist initiatives [11].

Thus, from the beginning of geopolitics as a science, Friedrich Ratzel evaluated the geographic and politic mobility of a state’s border by comparing it to the vitality of the state’s “mittelpunkt” and to its geographic occupied area, going beyond the limits of geography.  In his vision, the border is no longer just a piece of land that marks the separation of the states, but rather a peripheral organ of the state, an indicator for development or weakness. Ratzel considered that a state will tend to set its frontier by occupying the most advantageous position from a geostrategic point of view: mandatory crossing border locations, open sea, rivers considered highly important for navigation, mountains, etc.

Karl Haushofer also considered the frontier has a political life of its own, which is defined by the rapport between the organic defense force and the one needed to expand the frontier, as well as by the capacity to respond efficiently to an attack on the border [9].

In 1904, Mackinder elaborated the map of concentric areas in which Eurasia represented the “pivot of history” (later renamed “heartland”), where an important geostrategic role was assigned to Russia, which was encompassed by two arches: the interior arch, consisting of Germany, Austro-Hungary, Ottoman Empire, India and China and the exterior arch, consisting of Great Britain, Japan, Canada, United States, South Africa and Australia [10].

Nicholas Spykman is the one that brings to focus the strategic importance of “rimland”, arguing that Eurasian “heartland” occupies a territory too large and difficult to control, while controlling its shore-area implicitly allows controlling the communication towards and outwards the territory [28]. Nicholas Spykman reffers to the arch that surrounds the “heartland” and which is perceived as a “buffer area” between the marine and terrestrial power: “who controls rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.” [7]

In  the  post-Cold  War  era,  the  Russian  Federation  perceived  itself  as  a  victim  of “containing eurasiatic rimland”, perception anchored in the “historical failure” of the USSR in the Cold War [28].

Eurasianism, geopolitical theory transformed into state policy by Vladimir Putin, promotes the imperial nostalgia, according to which the destiny of the Russian Federation is to reconstruct the Great Space, fact which implies gaining political and economic control and exerting strategic influence upon the Eurasian territories lost in certain historical periods [3].

According to Aleksandr Dugin, whose neo-eurasianist ideas are adopted and implemented by Vladimir Putin, Russia is a vital component of heartland, a non-Russian Eurasia being an unconceivable reality in the absence of the Russian population’s defeat [1].

In his European “rimland” the proximity to a Russian-phobic Europe, fearsome of traumatic reminiscences of the Cold War, represents a worrying factor for the Russian Federation. According to George Friedman, the Russian Federation cannot tolerate “tight frontiers” that will not allow it to implement an “in-depth” defense strategy, like it was in the situations against Napoleon and Hitler.

Hence,  the  Russian  Federation  seeks  to  be  surrounded  by  “buffer  areas,”  such  as Kaliningrad, Belarus, Ukraine, Trans-Dniester, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, upon which it can exert its influence and gain access to the Baltic Sea, Black Sea and Caspian Sea, forcing its way through the Euro-Atlantic “rimland” consisting of Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania and Georgia, located in the near proximity of the Russian “heartland.”

In the context of Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine, new theories and practices regarding war and risk management have emerged, especially concerning terrorism risk. One possible approach to this problem the use of “frozen conflicts” paradigm for the former Soviet Union, which specifically addresses the Russian tactic of attacking the territorial integrity of a former Soviet neighbouring country comprising a Russian minority by supporting separatist tendencies in the context of actual or perceived rights violation of that minority. Thus, from the early 1990s, by applying this tactic, the Russian Federation has supported or contributed directly to the emergence of four separatist ethnic regions: Trans-Dniester, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Therefore, Moscow has intervened in Eastern Ukraine using the same excuse of supporting the Russian minority, while the real purpose is to prevent this country of high strategic importance from exiting its sphere of interest, under the threat of NATO enlargement. The situation in Eastern Ukraine has led many security studies experts to believe that in the 21st century we are witnessing the development of another type of conflict, which challenges the traditional Western perception of war (we can no longer make a clear distinction between asymmetric and conventional) and demands a re-evaluation of the conceptual framework, with the purpose of operationalizing new concepts and strategies. Therefore, the war in Ukraine cannot be characterized as a simple military campaign in the traditional understanding of the word, but it is a conflict between two armies where one openly acknowledges its Ukrainian identity, while the other (the pro-Russian rebels) do not acknowledge their clear connection to the Russian Federation. If we were to use a reductionist approach, what is happening in Eastern Ukraine can be perceived as a new type of non-conventional war, for which theoreticians have not yet identified a universally accepted label encompassing the entire set of indirect and asymmetric methods, tactics and techniques employed to disintegrate the Ukrainian state.

As such we are witnessing the operationalization of a new type of unconventional warfare for which experts have used different labels: “deniable conflict”, “hybrid warfare”, “invisible occupation”, “privatized conflict”, “next generation conflict”, “masked conflict”, “shadow war”, or “maskirovka” (meaning any military tactic that incorporates camouflage, concealment, deception, disinformation).

That  is  why  we  consider  it  is  imperative  to  establish  an  analysis  of  the  cognitive-emotional content of the Russian propaganda, used within the Eastern Ukraine conflict, in order to identify the main narrative dimensions, target audience, methods used, and potential neuropsychological consequences, determined by prolonged exposure to informational warfare.

1.3 Materials and work method.

The research protocol implied monitoring of Russian media sources involved actively in storytelling the Ukrainian conflict (focusing especially on the channels perceived by the West as being propaganda generators) and of public and official statements of Russian policy-makers, but also of some representative media sources from Ukraine, EU, USA and Romania. The monitoring process took place between August 2014 – August 2015, period of time that corresponds with an escalation of the armed conflict, especially in Eastern Ukraine, and also during which a variation of the narrative content and emphasis upon emotional aspects took place, amplifying the impact of the informational war. News, broadcasts, and editorials were monitored, and also speeches, official statements published electronically (online) in Russian, Ukrainian, English, French and Romanian. The detailed process and the cognitive-affective maps resulted are available in Annex, at the end of the paper.

1.4. Limits of the study.

Only the narrative was evaluated, the media coverage was not total (although we do consider the samples selected as being representative), the sources derived from social media were not included in the evaluation, such as Facebook or Twitter comments and visual content, blogs, etc; though several quantitative techniques were used, the final approach was rather qualitative. In spite of that limitation, we consider we have reached the assumed objectives, but also that the study can be further developed and perfected.


  1. Obtained results

Depending on the target audience, distribution channel, cognitive concepts used, the affective valence, intensity, and target, there can be distinguished five types of dominant speeches (main narrative domains):

2.1. Offensive

It has as target the Ukrainian population that supports the pro-western political orientation. It can be characterized through a psychological dimension dominated by fear, with the purpose of making the individual susceptible to fear and insecurity, to propagandistic messages. The most poignant cognitive-emotional concepts are represented by the imminence of a Russian invasion, annihilation, physical and psychological destruction, dissolving the identity, victimization and stigmatization, inferiority, contesting the right to historical existence, subordination and total submission[1].

The activities on the battlefield, doubled by the aggressive propaganda, represent a manifestation of power, through which Russia publicly and symbolically marks its temporarily lost territory (ubiquitous virtual presence under the form of dominant psychological image), by reaffirming its right to punish and kill (both physically, in the real environment, and symbolically, in the mental one) the weak and to psychologically constrain them until unconditioned submission (one form of “reflexive control” in the informational conflict) [35, 38]. Russia seeks to demonstrate that, although it no longer rules the physical space (temporarily), it permanently rules the psychological one and that it can achieve this purpose even in conditions of absence. The method used is probably considered an example via proxy for other former USSR states, who manifest similar political tendencies.

The messages conveyed aim to polarize the society and radicalize (regardless of opinion) the population, in order to destroy the social cohesion and proliferate “outbreaks” of contradictory opinions, so as to generate tensions and social uprisings, which will annul the capacity of reaching consensus, maintaining internal control and formulating a coherent viable foreign policy. The target includes not only the individual, but also the relational component – the social network created within a society, breaking the connections between individuals and between individual and society. The violent persisting emotions, conveyed through false and/or omitting narratives, aim to place the subject in anonymity, to detach him from any social network that could provide him with resilience, regressing to a psychological phenotype of primary resilience, ancestral, pre-societal. Another function was to help create the mental framework of the real combat space, especially by priming through propaganda a series of future (mostly staged) events and further mobilizing the civil society. One of the consequences is the absence of democracy or poisoning of the democracy mechanisms (non-participation, fragmentation, political de-legitimization, radicalization, upraise of extremist, marginal or non-democratic powers (dictatorship), upraise of pro-Russian or nostalgic parties, decrease of pro-Occidental support).

A main goal is to activate, stimulate, induce, proliferate, and maintain social conflicting tendencies (inter-ethnic, historical, religious, societal, and social) with the purpose of destabilization of the civil society and thus favoring scenarios that imply a civil war, separatist movements and state disruption. The alternative for these scenarios becomes coming back in the Russian sphere of influence, at least under the form of condominium.

Another particularity of the anti-Ukrainian propaganda represents the high number of narratives whose credibility is reduced or impossible to determine, generated by sources with no legitimacy, international recognition or credible journalistic history, whose finality is the proliferation of conspiracy theories, alternative scenarios, contra factual histories or alternatives of revisionist movements. This media approach, in the spirit of Russian diversionist school of thought, uses a series of manipulating techniques (constant repetition, convenient stereotypes, and simplified concepts, distorting the semantics until they lose meaning, substituting concepts, breaking the symmetry, self-questioning, metonymy, jargon and argot [19]) and pseudoscientific references, exploits superstitions, faith, occult sciences, and cognitive biases [24, 31, 32, 23]. The purpose is to undermine the scientific legitimacy of logical milestones and certainties, thus allowing, in the name of “freedom of expression”, the manipulation, handling and amplification of propaganda in the virtual space.

In this circumstance, the Russian propaganda sometimes mentions a series of unpredictable risk factors, which in the context of escalation of East-Ukrainian conflict could generate regional instability or could even increase the probability of using strategic weapons– “wild cards” (breakouts of infectious diseases, caused by lack of medical infrastructure of veterinary, natural disasters – earthquakes, geological events in the Black Sea, floods). For instance, mentioned discreetly but persistently, there is a “nuclear scenario”, which could consist in either the emergence of an ecological disaster (radioactive pollution – repeating the history from Chernobyl) or the presence of nuclear proliferation activities, illegal sale of radioactive materials or dual technologies towards non-state actors (Caucasian Islamic militants). This type of scenario could confirm the incapacity to govern of pro-Occidental authorities from Kiev (or even the complicity) and would impose and escalation of the conflict and “securitizing” extended areas from Ukraine. Another possible scenario is the one of extended epidemic, considering the lack of fundamental medical services in East of Ukraine, anterior problems or recently brought up issues (tuberculosis, HIV, polio, lack of vaccines), but also the possibility to use non-lethal biological weapons (biological agents, degree C) is taken into consideration by the “Gherasimov doctrine.” [20] These scenarios could confirm the two propaganda themes – Ukraine as a failed state and aggressor, both justifying the need for the Russian Federation to intervene, for “ethical”, “peaceful” or “humanitarian” reasons.

The Russian anti-Ukrainian propaganda machine can be represented as an “industry of fear and anxiety”, capable of projecting enough “psychological ammunition” on a geo-mental space so as to produce a favoring framework (“fear theatre”) for social and political uprisings.

2.2. Defensive

Focused on the Russian population and Russian ethnics from the former USSR republics. It has at least two distinct approaches – patriotic and protective (meant to counteract the independent information from Occidental sources).

The defensive propaganda with patriotic content aims at securitization from a cultural perspective (Slavism), idealizing the leader and projecting its image as a catalyst and unifying force within the Russian society and among the Russian-speakers from the former URSS republics, increasing the self-esteem until narcissism, promoting conservatism, focusing on rejecting Western liberal movements and using, with an increasing frequency, a series of Soviet propaganda themes, speculating collective obsessions (imminent war, conquest, disruption, defense of “Rodina”, the great war for defending the country, etc.). An aspect implied refers to significant proliferation, in the last years, of entertainment productions with military and patriotic subjects (exposing events from Second World War, Cold War and Russian history in a highly patriotic key).

The discourse is characterized by emotional coherence and empathy, the events being illustrated deliberately in a mythical and augmented perspective (historical, religious, narrative, etc.), converging towards an archetype representative for the Russian mental collective – from fears and phobias, carefully constructed by the leaders (conquest, national disruption, humiliation, the death of the nation) to the long-lasting expectation of imperial cornucopia (reflected in the territorial expansion, fear generated in the outside, international recognition of superiority and subordination/submission). The subjects are illustrative for the transaction proposed by Putin to a Russian nation captive in a policy it can no longer influence – creating a “reloaded” version of Soviet utopianism (cornucopia, greatness, superiority, center, empire, hegemon), which demands a leader (messianic like) with a proportional mission, whose support from the masses must be total [29, 14].

The Kremlin propaganda is structured in the form of concentric narratives that focus on the image of the leader and on its relation and connection with the Russian population, every propagandistic pier projecting a different image, so as to consolidate the symbiotic relationship. Through this complex and discreet operation of political marketing the social deification of the leader is accomplished, as well as placing him on a similar position with legendary leaders of the Russian state (Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible and, especially, Joseph Stalin[2]). Enlarging the borders of the Russian state (Georgia, Ukraine, possible in the arctic area), obtaining victories in border conflicts (Caucasus, Georgia, Ukraine), coming back in the global political arena, etc. offer the Russian leader the legitimacy to demand a place in the history of the Russian state. His media image is under the sign of dualism man (Our  “Vova”,  the  Russian  citizen  in  an  idealized  perspective)  and  masculine  archetype (where he prefers to be represented as King and Warrior, other representations becoming secondary). Securitization of the media image of an uncontested leader by controlling almost totally the internal media sphere, as well as eliminating every protestant or political adversary of the regime confirm the hypothesis according to which Putin ensures the necessary resources for a governance until 2024 [17].

The finality is gaining a new militant ideological content (“Putinism”), which will ensure the galvanization of the Russian society and will contribute to reconstructing the offensive imperial attitude. After 15 years of ruling, in the context of reduced economic and financial performances, doubled by corruption and oligarchy, Putin sees himself obliged to vary and emphasize the ideological offer (in the absence of one based on sustainable development, welfare and freedom). In the case of East-Ukrainian conflict, Putin is constrained by the fact that even if he can win the military confrontation and eventually the economic one, he exposes himself to a higher risk to lose the political battle. From this point of view, he is obliged to maintain the initiative in the narrative space – “the virtual state” (and real, in the limit of possibilities and convenient scenarios), considering his fragile position and the necessity to divert his vulnerabilities. It still remains an open subject: what are the fundamental philosophies beyond this ideological matrix, the means and purposes demanded by it [12].

As a particularity, we also note the use of a very large spectrum of ideological school of thought and faiths [30, 22, 34], from the classic ones (Russian orthodoxy, USSR nostalgia and communism) to the marginal ones, but traditional in the mental Slavic space (cosmism, esoteric, occult, transhumanism). Accepting and offering legitimacy to the message is a means obtained mostly by adopting and including certain memes from the ideological currents that marked the (expansionist) Russian history – ethnic orthodoxy, tsarism, and communism.[3]

The central message conveyed in this context by the Russian church is a “symbolic crusade”, based on a hybrid mix between Russian messianic current and “Putinist” propaganda, on the basis of fervent and militant ethnic nationalism. The old Soviet theme of moral superiority is revived (“the new Soviet man”) [20, 21], especially in the face of post-modernist values from Occidental values (from which it is distancing itself morally in the conflict between the “occidental neoliberal globalism” and “national religious resistance”) and in emphasizing the role of the Russian spiritual leader in this ideological confrontation. In the past decade, Putin has managed to become the beneficiary of great social image capital by associating himself with the image of the Russian church, using effectively the cohesive force that orthodoxy exerts within the Russian society.

Communism is evoked especially through tense situations from the bipolar period (ex. Missile Cuban Crisis[4]), but there also is an emphasis on the tendency to legitimize Stalinism (presented in an ideal perspective, as a period of territorial and military expansion, of increase in the prestige and political and military role of the USSR, of ruling the populations within the USSR, etc.). The nostalgic tone used in the propaganda messages functions as an emotional semaphore that it is signaling in a code shared and understood by a large sympathetic audience, mainly former Red Army reservists (some of them with actual combat experience in Afghanistan or in the many conflicts that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union), former communist party officials (“nomenklatura”) and members and, to a lesser degree, Russian-speaker Ukrainians and Russian sympathizers. The obsessive recall of a hyperbolized shared past that is unable to prefigure a decent future highlights the fact that the disconnection from a unified historic path involves the dissolution of the future for the Ukrainians. This induced perception creates further anxiety that should block the dissociation from the dominant Russian influence and the beginning of a new chapter of a democratic and European Ukraine. Furthermore, the unpredictable future near a remorseful and uncomfortable neighbor is the main concept of a whole corpus of Russian propaganda.

In the Russian transhumanism[5], a strong neo-Marxist current can be identified – an extravagant ideological casement, that allows Marxist ideas to be conveyed trans-generationally, among exponents of liberal currents (or pro-western origin), ecologists, Science-Fiction fans, cyber-punk, trans humanist, fans of rock music, etc.

Cosmism [5] (philosophical current emerged and developed in Russia during the 19th century), although it is not within the grace of the Orthodox Church, represents another cultural environment controlled by the Kremlin after the year 2000, active mostly in the shadow of Eurasianism.

Protective propaganda includes both symmetrical alterations in the “Putinist” manner of accusation brought up by the international community and the Ukrainian media (ex. taking down the MH17 plane, clandestine military and informative missions in East of Ukraine, effects of humanitarian crisis on the population), but also a series of interpretations and “ethical” justification for the actions initiated by the Kremlin. The morality of the instruments used, as well as instigation and conflict provocation using propaganda and subversive mechanisms, as well as their consequences (the humanitarian drama in Eastern Ukraine and the pressures upon which opposing forces from Crimea and Russian Federation are subjected) are never taken into account or the importance of the feud is obsessively underlined.

There is a fear, discreetly present, but constant, that a political and economic independent Ukraine in rapport to Russia, integrated in the European Union and ideologically closed to NATO, will become a potential aggressor or a platform for launching a NATO strike against Russia. This potential conflict is perceived as a major risk factor to the regional and global security, due to its escalation potential, including by using strategic weapons. The offensive military options of Russia in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine – local escalation, conquering new territories, arming separatist militants and militarization of Crimea (including with strategic weapons), extending the fleet in the Black Sea, as well as supporting the western sanctions and self-imposing an embargo are perceived as risk elements necessary for attainting in an asymmetric manner the balance that will allow maintaining the defensive perimeter and early warning alarm for Russia to keep its territorial integrity. The implicit support of pro-Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine aims to create this defensive perimeter and to counterbalance the process of integrating Ukraine in NATO, aspects that constitute clear “ethic” justification in the case of pro-Occidental intervention in Ukraine.

A distinct segment represents counteracting the critical opinions generated by the annexation of Crimea – actual costs and perspective (economic, politic, security), pressure in formulating foreign policy, the international public opinion, etc. Again, the approach has a strong emotional element, conveyed through the Kremlin media. The annexation process is also a teleological one, an inevitable consequence of historical forces and ethno-cultural similarities (predestination); Crimea is a miniature holographic projection of Russia (similar to a fractal on a small scale)[6] . Recent Russian cultural productions reflect this trend of legitimization of annexation, by going over some historical subjects – Christianity and the start of Eastern Orthodoxy, the Crimea War, Second World War battles, etc.

2.3. Adaptive

Has the purpose of ensuring control over the population from occupied areas in Ukraine by promoting programs of cultural, political and identity suppression, as well as by implementing bio-political measures. Securitization and cultural and cognitive ruling are accomplished by integrating the nationalist element, favoring the Russian ethnic element, ensuring prominence in the social domain, invoking arguments and historical heritage[7] , ethno-cultural discrimination – elements adopted and adapted from the school of ethno-psychology from the Soviet period. The bio-political program is a “soft” substitute for communist practices in the domain (crimes, genocide, mass-deportation, forced alienation, social alienation, etc.), but with the same finality – social elimination and in the long run, physical elimination of non-Russian individuals and protesters. The analysis of the Russian propaganda offers a series of clues regarding the action mechanisms (frequently presented under the form of “grey” incite, politically non-assumed, and especially apparently not officially accepted), which facilitate the physical elimination (migration) or biological, psychological, and moral degradation. Practices more common after the annexation of Crimea refer to: restricted access to health care services or lack of health care services, higher education, liberal professions, attaining positions in the administration, marginalization and social denigration, disruption of cohesion within the social group, maintaining a ubiquitous state of psychological pressure [18].

The purpose is to consolidate the Slavic dominant cultural current, which will stimulate the elimination (migration of other ethnic populations), suppress (intimidation, stigmatization, subordination) or integration of other ethnics from Crimea or Eastern Ukraine. Consolidating the Russian element represents an additional pretext for Russia to get actively involved, especially considering the intention of militarization of the area [8, 37, 25, 4].

2.4. Intimidation

It is focusing on individuals from NATO and EU countries. The military strength of the Russian Federation is augmented and hyperbolized, as a part of the propagandistic arsenal focused on building an image of power and overestimated prestige. The Occident (and especially NATO-USA-CIA, and to a lesser degree, EU) is the target of a victimization campaign that seeks to assign responsibility for human and material losses in the Ukraine crisis and also for the potential negative outcomes of the conflicting situation. Russia has a position of force, threatening the economies of the EU countries (self-imposed embargo on food, energy policy – gas and oil pipes, campaign against symbol companies from the Occident), minimizing the effect that economic sanctions and oil price have upon Russian economy. The risk of amplifying the conflict by emerging unstable hot-spots within the EU (the Baltic countries – Latvia, Lithuania, or even Finland and Sweden [6]) is frequently emphasized, especially in the context of condemning the development of anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe. The rapport between Russia and the European Union in pro-Kremlin propaganda is presented as a subordinated one, including in matters of historical evolution; the recent attitude has as purpose maintaining the scope of the hierarchy and to underline the possibilities for domination. In imperial logic, those are the geopolitical dividends aimed at – generating major dysfunctions within the EU and transforming it into a geo-economic and political actor that is irrelevant for Russia and willing to compromise.

The Russian propaganda is especially corrosive in reference to the Baltic countries, considering their status of former USSR republics and the fact that the Russian language is spoken or understood by the majority of the population (Russian is the 7th most spoken language in the EU). Thus, the rights of the Russian speakers and the possibility to have access to “independent” (pro-Kremlin) channels are often invoked. Russia places itself in the center of global pan-Slavism (in a position of similarity with Russia as center of global proletarian revolution during the Communist period). A worrying aspect is the existing rhetoric regarding the risk of augmenting the conflict between Russia and EU and NATO countries, confrontation in which the Russian propaganda does not exclude the possibility of using weapons of mass destruction. The frequent use of this vocabulary in an aggressive rhetoric, of partially-imminent scenario and reiteration of similar subjects from the Cold War seek to generate a reaction of fear, inhibition, and insecurity (amplifying the consequences [33]). We can notice that one of the constant subjects in Russian propaganda is the diversification of means of conveying the propaganda, setting networks of influence, attracting a high number of receptors/ sympathizers of the regime from various environments. One of the most evident strategies adopted, mentioned under various forms, is the one referring to social movements meant to destabilize the society, which have as a starting point Russian, pro-Russian or Slavic ethnic groups (respecting the rights, autonomy) or facilitating the access of the parties that represent those groups in the national political arena.

2.5. Neuter/informative

It is focusing on “unseen” audience, targeted by all the parties involved in the conflict, with long-term impact – global audience, from the European citizen or the not interested American citizen to the antipode. The obvious element of propaganda is abandoned in favor of “academic” partisan, using official information, public statements of the political leaders and diplomats, “independent” analysts who talk about the dominant subjects of the “black” propaganda in a technical language, with a lesser degree of emotion. The purpose is to de-legitimize “the Western meaning nuclei” that can counteract the negative effects of the Kremlin propaganda and generate a public opinion contrary to the Russian interests. The main disadvantage is the lack of Russian media network with global coverage[8] (there is, though, an interested partisan of European media trusts). However, the ethical norms of the Western media are skillfully speculated (impartial presentation of the events, the right to respond, alternative points of view, non-discrimination based on ethnicity, cultural and religious differences), specific to post-modernist era, the fear of compromising oneself in the public space, financial and influential preferential connections and potential negative outcomes, etc.

A potentially negative consequence of the Kremlin propaganda is using certain fragments during election campaigns in the countries involved or affected by the conflict.[9] The propagandistic elements can be easily inserted in the public speech of a flamboyant candidate, as much as the demonstration of force and power of the Kremlin within the media matches perfectly the campaign strategies of (presidential) candidates. Carefully manipulated, the stylistic excesses of the propaganda, as well as proofs of the Russian intervention in the Ukrainian conflict, could contribute to the electoral dynamism of a candidate less sensitive to the Russian idiosyncrasies or willing to offer an extended space to negotiations.


  1. Conclusions and discussion

By dominating the mental space (psycho-sphere), Russia adds a geo-psychological strategic dimension (through its capacity of redesigning mental maps) to the expansionist geopolitical (offensive) phenomenon. “Soft power”, in this case, is efficiently weaponized (“a la russe” – militarized), becoming a dimension of the conflict (hard power).

The purpose of military, economic and social actions is to transform Ukraine in a failed state, on the verge of bankruptcy; in this context, the informational warfare represents a new weapon destined to destabilize the social balance and dissolve the governing capacity of the Ukrainian state, elements followed by fragmentation and disintegration.

The idea of territorial expansion (the geopolitical obsession of the Russian Empire) can be counteracted by the decay on the temporal axis (the absence of desirable future in propagandistic messages, transforming the idealized past in a ghost of the future (regression of the temporal arrow), replacing the positive expectations (vision, progress, development, freedom) with nostalgia (nostrum/algos – regress). The major vulnerability of the “Putinist” strategy is the long-term sustainability, fact revealed also by the disproportionate attention towards losses, which will further amplify the offensive component and determine a force position. The propaganda has a strategic role by distracting and covering events that emphasize risks, losses and vulnerabilities, as well as promoting ethnic nationalism as an emotional shield that annuls any structured internal discussion (and rational) about strategy and leadership.

Another aspect is the mirroring obsession in matters of military and political power of the USA and NATO, as well as EU economy (who become “shadows” of an Imperial Russia or of geopolitical projects initiated, such as the Shanghai Security Organization or Eurasian Union, projection used by the Kremlin propaganda machine for domestic consumption), as a first rank global player, attitude almost similar to the one adopted during the Cold War. Russia projects itself as a balance element, meant to counteract (along with China) the military-political global strategy of the US and the economic-political strategy of the EU, offering stability in the international system. It is frequently mentioned the necessity for Russia to maintain, in this century, the capacity to face global challenges (the status of Great Power) for keeping the international peace. This discourse will lead to a polycentric vision of the world, whose development and stability will be ensured in the 21st century by a Russian Federation 2.0, under the condition that its rights as a great power be respected.

The propaganda also represents a communication environment (cognitively and emotionally altered, but which can be decoded by the involved parties), its study representing a useful process for understanding intentions and interests of the adversary. The structure of the cognitive-emotional maps and their evolution in comparison with the conflicting events offer a series of clues regarding sensitive points (red flags), partisan vantage points, intention of the parties, weaknesses, and strategy. The existence of subjects highly debated in this unrestricted language in Kremlin (neutrally or controversially presented) offer some useful hints to develop a plan for progressive de-conflict.

The informational warfare of Russia is based on a hybrid multi-perspective strategy, derived from combining classical elements (old school) of the Soviet period with aspects pertained to neocortical warfare. The military confrontation within the Ukrainian territory are propagandistically perverted into “meaningful warfare”, meant to cover the humanitarian drama and Kremlin interests in the region with a “polylogical emotional fog” that relativizes and devalues the statements based on proof. Meta-propaganda (discredit of adverse propaganda) further amplifies the cognitive dissonance needed to establish some ground points for understanding reality. Another purpose aimed to ensure durable influence (in the case of EU citizens, for instance) is modification of the systems used for interpretation of the conflict. The efficiency of this “psychological ammunition” is obtained by propaganda on multiple media channels, in order to gain a saturation effect which will consolidate credibility and capacity to influence the target.

The synergy between informational and cyber conflict amplifies the effects of the psychological aggression, by demonstrating the ubiquitous presence of the aggressor – the demarcation line lies in the mind of every individual, unwillingly attracted towards a scary reality (“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you,” Trotky L.). The image of the conflict becomes its herald, or an avatar that can be manipulated, amplified, exported, etc. using the electronic infrastructure of globalization; the image prevails over a reality with grey actors (whose actions and interests are difficult, if not impossible to explain in the media); the conflict within the imagological space allows each actor to express the partisan message (of its own version – parallel reality) as well as retouching the moral profile, especially in front of the national and global audience.

It is worth discussing to what degree certain aspects of the informational war represent a substitute for military conflict, a convenient solution, up to a point, for all the parties involved. Thus, for the Kremlin it is an easy and fast solution to amplify its prestige internally (the force of influence derives from the speaker’s prestige!) and to reconfirm/ authenticate internal narratives, sensitive aspects for the ruling elites, while for the Ukrainian pro-Occidental leaders it represents a strategy to reduce the human losses.

The (tacit) tolerance of Western leaders towards the existence of a Russian influence in the European media seems to fit into a plan to avoid the sometimes uncomfortable position of the Kremlin (internally and externally), considering the idiosyncrasies of the Eastern neighbor. The information warfare (from afar) represents an alternative to the military (un)conventional warfare, when it proves its efficiency; in fact, a symbolic mark of (imperial) intentions that overrule the (real) capabilities. It is left to discuss to what extent one can establish a convertibility system between “psychological ammunition” and military one, as well as between the objectives of the two forms of conflict (informationally dominant vs. military).

Corollary: it is possible for more advanced generations in matters of info-cyber conflicts, through the effects upon cybernetic, energy and societal (cognitive, emotional) infrastructure to substitute themselves from the effects generated by a conflict with weapons of mass destruction? (virtuality, efficiency, scalability, transnational, and partially-global coverage, partial/flexible reversibility, ethics, aesthetics).

Considering the experimental character of the hybrid war and the neuro-psychologic aggressive component (observed in Ukraine, where it was used as a degradation weapon)[10](see Annex), we consider that the possibilities of evolution towards future forms of conflict must be analyzed (alternatives, necessary capabilities, inception and finality, spin-offs), role and applicability within NATO, as well as identifying prevention and counteracting methods, obtaining superiority in the cyber-informational arena. Recent events have demonstrated that although it was perceived as a minor equivalent of a military conflict, the informational aggression must be included in the taxonomy of military strategies and security policies.

Looking back at the rich tradition of Soviet propaganda school, we consider one must take into account to what extent this media infrastructure that allows Kremlin access to a global audience will allow that the techniques of the cyber-informational warfare be used for other objectives of Russian foreign policy. Internally, the intention seems to be the re-ideologisation of the regime, securing the image of the leader and of its loyal ruling apparatus, “defensive” aspects which should not allow the development of symmetric actions (under the form of “destabilizing” media campaigns). Another aspect worth taking into account refers to establishing responsibilities for severe consequences (crimes, limiting freedom, radicalization, spreading panic within the society), deliberately induced by state propaganda (if we accept they exist, and informational warfare campaigns are conceived with this purpose). To what extent the “lethal” potential of the cyber-informational conflict (camouflaged) can be incriminated by the future international legislation, as a form of neuro-psychological mass-aggression (neuro-ethics).

Also, if we accept that propaganda is a “permissive component” of “contactless” conflicts, then we consider that the role and responsibilities of media institutions in matters of prevention, maintenance, amplification or limitation of an informational conflict must be established. It is left to discuss how the integrity and credibility of the press can be protected, considering it is one of the essential components of a democracy.

Considering the above-mentioned aspects pertaining to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, we share the point of view according to which the virtual space (and its connections with the psychological sphere) must be recognized as a dimension of the military conflict and must be regulated accordingly. We consider that there is an evident risk of unconventional weapons proliferation, fueled by nation-states that, out of the desire to attain foreign affairs objectives by avoiding international sanctions, exploit some “grey” niches of the international legislation (vague, general delimitation, insufficiently regulated, not updated, that allow the operationalization of scenarios that use emergent or hybrid technologies and strategies, that do not represent explicit infringements of international or bilateral agreements). Hence, this kind of conflict is not characterized by erasing the demarcation line between a military classical conflict and peace, involving the civil population, using the civil and corporate infrastructure, impossibility to react symmetrically or to attain quantitative or qualitative parity, are difficult to prove (offering a “return address”, etc.).

We consider that although the informational conflict does not have the capability to break the strategic balance, it has an inherent potential to amplify the “strategic uncertainty” and the unpredictability degree in international relations.

In conclusion, taking into account the complexity of the above-mentioned aspects, we propose several subjects meant for an interdisciplinary study:

  • Identifying the most efficient indicators (online and offline) that will allow an extended and fast evaluation of the emotional status of the population that is under prolonged informational stress.
  • Identifying the individual and societal vulnerability points in the case of informational warfare (profile of risks groups) and the neuropsychological mechanisms responsible with deviant behaviors and negative attitudes (radicalization, emphasis on sociopath tendencies, addiction to psychotropic substances) or of coping mechanisms.
  • Identifying the ways through which national health systems can be involved in counteracting the effects of informational warfare and accomplishing resilience integrated strategy within the political-military elites and society.
  • The role of neurosciences in +4th generation conflicts (objectives, work methodology, benefits and competitive advantages, practical applications within military and financial-economic informational conflicts).
  • Identifying the specific operations of an informational warfare that can be modeled and that are relevant – propaganda and opinion and influence dynamism, exerting “fear epidemic” and the impact upon political options, the impact of societal factors in increasing resilience, explaining different behaviors induced by propaganda messages, depending on the beliefs of the receiver (ethnical, religious reasons), modeling efficiency of the counter-propaganda mechanisms, etc. (computational psychiatry and sociology, sociophysics, agent based modeling).


Russian monitored media sources:

ITAR-TASS (http://tass.ru/en)

Sputnik News (http://www.sputniknews.com )

Komsomoloskaya Pravda (http://www.kp.ru)

Pravda (http://english.pravda.ru)

Russia beyond the headlines (http://rbth.com)

Channel One Russia (http://www.1tv.ru/eng )

Russia insider (http://russia-insider.com/en)

Russia Today (https://www.rt.com  http://news.russiatoday.ro)

Life News (http://lifenews.ru)

Ukraina.ru (http://ukraina.ru)

The Moscow times (http://www.themoscowtimes.com)

Zvezda (http://tvzvezda.ru/news)

Izvestia (http://izvestia.ru)

NTV Mir (http://www.ntvmir.ntv.ru)

Vocea Rusiei  (http://romanian.ruvr.ru/  – until 24.12.2014)

Ukrainian monitored media sources:

Kyvpost (http://www.kyivpost.com )

Podrobnosti (http://podrobnosti.ua)

Unian (http://www.unian.info)

Ukrinform (http://www.ukrinform.net)

Ukrainian Journal (http://www.ukrainianjournal.com)

Tyzhden (http://tyzhden.ua)

Information resistance (http://sprotyv.info/ en)

Stop Fake (http://www.stopfake.org) .

Monitored media sources from United States of America:

The Wall Street Journal (http://www.wsj.com/europe)

Reuters (http://www.reuters.com)

Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com)

USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com)

The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com)

Newsweek (http://europe.newsweek.com)

Fox News  ( http://www.foxnews.com )

Monitored European media sources:

BBC (http://www.bbc.com  http://www.bbc.com/ukrainian )

Deutsche Welle (http://www.dw.com/ro)

The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com)

The Telegraph ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk  )

Euro News (http://www.euronews.com/)

Euractiv (http://www.euractiv.com/ ;

EU Observer (https://euobserver.com)

European Daily (http://europeandaily.com/ )

Radio Free Europe (http://www.rferl.org)

France-Presse (http://www.afp.com)

Romanian media sources:

Agerpress (http://www.agerpres.ro)

Adevărul (http://adevarul.ro)

Cotidianul (http://www.cotidianul.ro)

Evenimentul Zilei (http://www.evz.ro)

Gândul (http://www.gandul.info)

Jurnalul național (http://jurnalul.ro)

România liberă (http://www.romanialibera.ro)

After selecting the materials, the key-concepts were identified using meta-search engines and cluster (Carrot2, Yippy, iBoogie – internet) and the software KH Coder (for selected and translated materials). The identification of existent cognitive connections between key-concepts was facilitated by the use of the software Tropes. The analysis of the emotional connections and intensities within the text was made by using both specialized software (Sentiment analysis online, TexSIE), and an empirical analysis system, based on analyzing emotions using Putchik emotions’ circle and a scale of intensity from 0 to 5.

Carrot2 – is an open source search results clustering engine that can automatically cluster small collections of documents and can offer ready-to-use components for fetching search results from various sources including GoogleAPI, Bing API, eTools Meta Search, Lucene, SOLR, and more. (Source: http://project.carrot2.org ). Yippy – (formerly Clusty) is a metasearch engine developed by Vivisimo which offers clusters of results. (Source: http://yippy.com) . IBoogie – a clustering engine developed by Cyber-Tavern that combines metasearch and clustering to deliver and organize search results from multiple sources into structured content. (Source: http://iboogie.com) . KH Coder – is free software for quantitative content analysis or text mining that can be also utilized for computational linguistics. It can be used to analyze Japanese, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish text. (Source: http://khc.sourceforge.net/en) . Tropes – is an open source software for semantic classification, keyword extraction, linguistic and qualitative analysis, designed to be used for Information Science, Market Research, Sociological Analysis, Scientific and Medical studies, etc. (Source: http://www.semantic-knowledge.com/tropes.htm) . Sentiment Analysis Online – online software for basic sentiment analysis (Source: http://www.sentimentanalysisonline.com) . TexSIE – online software for sentiment analysis (Source: http://tationem.com: 8080/TexSIE) . In some cases we have tried to take into consideration some video representations (photos, video) or audio, that came along the narratives, especially in the cases in which they represented an intrinsic component of the propagandistic message conveyed. All the above-mentioned steps have allowed us to establish a database, fundament for emotional-cognitive maps, realized with the support of Empathica. EMPATHICA is a software program that uses the idea of Cognitive-Affective Maps (CAMs) developed by Paul Thagard and collaborators. These maps derive from ideas about emotional cognition described in Thagard’s book Hot Thought. (Source: http://cogsci.uwaterloo.ca/empathica.html) Cognitive-affective mapping is a qualitative research tool to identify, visualize and analyze existing belief structures [26]. A  cognitive-affective  map  (CAM)  [35]  is  a  network  diagram  or  concept  graph  that “displays not only the conceptual structure of people’s views, but also their emotional nature, showing the positive and negative values attached to concepts and goals” [27]. A cognitive-affective map (CAM) is a visual representation of the emotional values of a group of interconnected concepts. It employs the following conventions: 1. Ovals represent emotionally positive (pleasurable) elements. 2. Hexagons represent emotionally negative (painful) elements. 3. Rectangles represent elements that are neutral or carry both positive and negative aspects. 4. The thickness of the lines in the shape represents the relative strength of the positive or negative value associated with it. 5. Solid lines represent the relations between elements that are mutually supportive. 6. Dashed lines represent the relations between elements that are incompatible with each other. 7. The thickness of the lines in the connection represents the strength of the positive or negative relation. When color is available, CAMs conventionally represent positive elements by green ovals (go), negative ones by red hexagons (stop), and neutral ones by yellow rectangles.

The methods used within our study are:

  • Discourse analysis – applied on official statements
  • Content analysis – in case of media materials
  • Analysis of emotional-cognitive maps – in the case of CAM, representative for the Russian propaganda (CAMR), and comparative – between CAM and CAMR, representative for the way in which the Ukrainian conflict was illustrated by the media in Ukraine, EU and USA
  • Interpretation of the results obtained through activation likelihood estimation technique.


Figure 1. A cognitive-affective map (CAM)

  1. Ovals – emotionally positive (pleasurable) elements.
  2. Hexagons – emotionally negative (painful) elements.
  3. Rectangles – emotionally neutral/ambivalent.
  4. The thickness of the lines in the shape – the relatiton strength of the positive or negative value associated with it.
  1. Solid lines – elements that are mutually supportive.
  2. Dashed lines – elements that are incompatible.
  3. The thickness of the lines in the connection – the strength of the positive or negative relation.



Figure 2. The cognitive-emotional map (CAM) of the Russian propaganda related to Ukrainian conflict

Every node of the network can be further transformed in a sub-network that allows a more detailed and targeted analysts. The main narrative domains of propaganda presented in the paper can be identified as functional networks developed around a dominant theme (cognitive coherence) pictured in a homogenous emotional background (emotional coherence). This synchronization, both cognitive and emotional is a characteristic of the top-down controlled systems (centralized), one of the most common feature of the totalitarian regimes. The near-simultaneous targeting of different objectives and the complexity of the narrative involved certify that the informational warfare was a careful staged, premeditated and malicious operation.

The CAM resulted from the analysis of the Ukrainian media shows a rather simple structure, organized as a polarized cognitive and affective network. Its apparent simplicity is a consequence of the “reactive” nature of the news, lack of anticipation and the dominance of the media space by the Russian propaganda. The main narrative domain is the defense of the country and the preservation of sovereignty in the context of the hybrid conflict initiated by Russians. European Union, United States, United Kingdom, France and NATO are perceived as the most important allies while diplomacy and sanctions are considered to be the instruments of choice in order to solve the crisis. The necessity of a more active involvement of the international community and organizations is constantly stressed and acts as a signal of the will of the Ukrainians to solve the crisis as peaceful as possible. We also found a positive image in the Ukrainian media for Romania, Poland, Estonia, Georgia, Republic of Moldova; although there are significant differences in the topics about the involvement in the crisis, in the Ukrainian media they are bound by the affiliation to UE, NATO or the shared values and past Russian aggressions.


Figure 3. The CAM from the Ukrainian media content related to conflict (media representation).

Figure 3 – As shown in the CAM resulted from the analysis of the Romanian press with respect to the events in Ukraine, the perception of the conflict is under the sign of cognitive polarization placed on an emotionally balanced and tempered background. Although most of the opinions expressed are against the Russian involvement in the crisis in Ukraine, the style remains informative, technical, logical, and itis not accompanied by an apriori negative emotional key. In general, legal, military, economic, etc. arguments are invoked from legitimate sources explaining the situation in Ukraine and the potential impact on Romania. While this version cannot be said to represent the „truth”, it is a more ballanced and credibile version and itis synchronized with the points of view presented by the main EU and US media channels.

Another characteristic of the conflict representation in the Romanian media was the use of present tense as the dominant timeframe – the separation of the historical dossier of the Romanian-Russian relations and refrain from unfounded foresight scenarios or unilateral views (wishful-thinking). In order to avoid the cognitive-emotional sources of error (biases) that will further deepen the emotional polarization of the Romanian audiences and probably would act as a priming stimuli when historical issues were inevitable, the style used was generally informative and the cognitive elements were predominant.

From the Romanian media we isolated five main narrative domains:

  • a strong positive perception (allies – European Union, NATO, United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Turkey, Poland, Bulgaria, Moldavia, etc., or subjects of positive interest – Deveselu military base);
  • a negative perception related to the actions attributed to the Russian side in Ukraine (Russian-backed rebels, Donbas Republic, NovoRossia plan, MH-17 disaster, etc.);
  • negative consequences for the Ukrainians as a result of the conflict (death toll, humanitarian crisis, loss of Crimea, lack of healthcare).There is an important wave of solidarity and empathy for the sufferings of the Ukrainian civilians;
  • risky evolutions of the crisis in Ukraine (prolong conflict, economic depression, political instability, the risk of a regional conflict, etc);
  • a positive perception on the measures taken by the UE and NATO countries in order to contain and solve the crisis.



Figure 4. The CAM from the Romanian media content related to conflict (media representation)

A separate component of our study consisted in identifying the probability of brain areas that are potentially influenced by propaganda, pursuant to exposure to negative cognitive and emotional content of the propagandistic messages conveyed, using the technique activation likelihood estimation technique (ALE) [13] and Neuro-synth software. ALE analysis involves modelling the convergence of loci reported from different experiments (generally obtained from fMRI studies) as probability distributions whose width is based on empirical estimates of the spatial uncertainty due to the between-subject and between-template variability of neuroimaging data. Neuro-synth and Brainspell  are platforms for large-scale, automated synthesis of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data. They are using thousands of published articles reporting the results of fMRI studies from witch extracts presumtive (probabilistic) functional connectivity and co-activation maps. (http://www.neurosynth.org; http://brainspell.org/).

Thus, we have done an automatic and empiric evaluation of the emotional profile of the propagandistic messages (offensive propaganda – 50 propaganda messages); these evaluations have represented the material analyzed with the support of Neuro-synth. The narratives were automatically analyzed using sentiment analysis and empirical methods using the Plutchik circle of emotions and a sentiment intensity scale from 1-5. For each media article a final score has been achieved and a spider diagram or map was created; this diagram represented the equivalent footprint of the intentional emotional signature of the message. Finally, we created a database that allowed the classification and ranking of the selected materials depending on the intensity of the emotional content. The main hypothesis of this small research is that of the informational war as a degradation weapon used to target the adversary’s “psycho-sphere.”

Afterwards, based on the confrontation with the results obtained in similar studies, we have done an interpretation and a discussion, in order to establish the potential neuro-psychological consequences, result of prolonged exposure to violent propaganda campaign. This experimental approach seeks to be an early stage of a neuro-imagistic study, whose purpose is to identify the areas that are frequently stimulated (targeted?) during an informational war and achieve a first estimation of potential consequences.


Figure 5. The algorithm of the research.

The terms resulted from the analysis of the selected Russian media that were used in the term-based meta-analyses with Neuro-synth: fear, panic, disgust, anxiety, sad emotion, anger, media violence, threatening emotional faces, processing stressful information, angry rumination, depressed, facial expression of pain, disgust-inducing pictures, unpleasant pictures, traumatic images, non-facial emotional visual stimuli, emotional prosody, negative emotional study, emotional perception, angry vocal expression, media violent exposure in adolescents, (acute) psychological stress, sustained fear, childhood emotional abuse.


Figure 6. Initial approximation of the virtual neural activation pattern resulted from exposure to violent Russian propaganda visualized as a network (relational map). Red hexagons are the most stimulated regions while green ovals the less involved (sporadic or non-related activation).

 The degree of association between the areas in the activation patterns is showed as in the thickness of the connections. This general (dominant) pattern resulted from the superimposition of the fifty individual brain activation patterns was compared with other patterns of activation obtained from individuals diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety, depression, etc. in order to see the degree of similarity.


Figure7. The neural activation pattern resulted from virtual exposure to violent Russian propaganda visualized as an activation map (false coloring, the map is qualitative, semi-quantitative, using Neurosynth online platform). The most stimulated areas are situated in the prefrontal cortex, parts of the limbic system, occipital integration areas (Brodmann areas 7,9,10, 11, 12, 17, 18, 19, 23, 25, 29, 32, 33, 35, 46). Further connectivity analysis between targeted areas allowed a more thorough understanding of emotional circuitry involved in the affective reaction resulted from propaganda exposure. The data will be used for an additional study using response times, eye tracking, pupilometry, galvanic skin response and electroencephalographic (EEG) data.

Color legend:  – activation in more than 80% of the cases;  – activation in more than 60% of the cases; – activation in more than 50% of the cases;  – activation in more than 30% of the cases;


By comparing the virtual dominant brain activation pattern with other well-known activation patterns we obtained the following proportion (degree) of similarity: 80% stress, 75% anxiety, 65% depression, 60% anger, 55% generalized anxiety disorder, 40% PTSD-like, 25% major depression, 15-20% PTSD.

Most of the areas activated are located in the frontal-temporal area (prefrontal cortex, insular cortex) and the limbic system (hippocampus, amygdala, cingulate gyrus, parahippocampal gyrus, limbic cortex). This broad activation pattern involving a variety of brain structures is due to both the transmission of information using multiple sensorial channels (such as visual – photos and videos – or auditory – the audio soundtrack from the video reportages) and the multitude of sensorial details presented in the propaganda messages.


Brodmann areas activated by the repeated exposure to propaganda and their most important functions (activation rates are decreasing from top to the bottom of the table)
9, 10 Normal activity of working memory,  spatial memory, memory recall, recognition of emotions, sintaxis, metaphoric language, lexicon, verbs, self-image and self-appreciation, familiar smells, conflicts. gain, risk vs. reward
11,12 Conflict/risk vs.  gain/reward, unspoken sounds, smells, internal  emotional equilibrium
33 Emotional balance, response resillence, reward, identification of pain
35 Spatial mapping, acquisition of new memories, detection of novelty, complex memory integration, especially short term memory
25 Integration area, attention and emotional processing, verbal fluency, initiation and suppression of dialogue, monetization of the consequences of personal actions
29 Spatial memory, disrupting performance on a compound-feature negative-discrimination task, contextual fear conditioning, acquisition of active avoidance
23 Learning of complex tasks, affective language, visual discrimination, fear conditioning, mood change, memory hub for childhood memories, affected in emotional traumas
32 Emotional balance, response resillence, reward, identification of pain
46 Affect, social judgement, abstract thinking,  intentionality, executive memory
17 Detection of visual patterns, visual-spatial visual processing,  tracking motion, visual attention, visual priming, word and face encoding
18 Detection of basic visual parameters, feature attention, detection of patterns, participating in the ”confruntation naming circuitry”, visual attention, visual priming
7 Morphology of the hand riding, establishment of long term goals, economical decisions, switching of attention, language, personal space, “black and white” judgements, estimation, visuospatial attention.
19 Visual patterns, eye movements, color monetization, sign language, selective attention orientation, spatial working memory, saccade, visual imagery, face-name recognition, self-awareness, awareness of visual-spatial events.

Frequent use of signal-images and phrases rich in emotional content was observed since the beginning of the conflict and the analysis of the neuropsychological impact proved that the propaganda was tailored in such a way to produce a deterrent effect and intense psychological inhibition (in the end most of the Russian media reports were declared fraudulent or of uncertain origin). For example, the images that are showing violent individuals, antisocial or immoral actions are activating the parahippocampal right gyrus, right frontal median gyrus and the left amygdala. Another set of images frequently used are showing human faces (live or dead adult civilians, children or Ukrainian soldiers) expressing intense emotions of fear, terror, anxiety. The processing of this visual stimuli involves a multitude of visual areas such as the right superior occipital gyrus, left insula and left thalamus (sad faces); right cingulate and anterior cingulate gyrus, the right parahippocampal gyrus, left cerebellum, subcortical regions such as the left globus-pallidus and the right claustrum and prefrontal regions such as the bilateral inferior frontal gyrus and the right middle frontal gyrus (angry faces); the bilateral amygdala and fusiform gyrus, right cerebellum, left inferior parietal lobule, left inferior frontal and right medial frontal gyrus (fearful faces); the left amygdala, fusiform gyrus, bilateral middle temporal gyrus, left middle frontal and right inferior frontal gyri, right insula, left pre-central gyrus, left inferior parietal lobule and left thalamus (disgusted faces) [15, 16]. Crying was also a frequent finding in the video reports; in these cases we observed the activation of the right superior occipital gyrus, left insula and left thalamus.

We also consider that the emotional narratives selected in our research can alter a person’s beliefs, attitudes and intentions, may consolidate memory, cue heuristics and biases in judgment or influence group distinctions, framing the world in which an individual lives while providing an alternate form of rationality that may lead a person to yield to persuasive calls to action [39]. The use of storytelling and narratives as powerful cohesive elements of cultural identity allows the discrete insertions of ideological memes as part of a narrative rationality disguise under an acceptable and apparently inoffensive cultural skin. In order to build, convey and publicize a comprehensive counter-narrative is essential to aquire the ability to cover the major dimensions of the violent ontology in question (political, historical, socio-psychological, theological, instrummental), make use of sophisticated ideological counterarguments and be supported by credible messengers [40, 41].  In today’s informational conflict, “winning the minds and souls” using tailored multi-layered counter-narratives require the fusion and an in-depth knowledge of ethnography, anthropology, sociology, neurobiology, computer science and mastery of narrow interdisciplinary domains as psycholinguistic, memetic engineering, neuroepigenetics, neuroeconomy, parapsychology etc.

A further connectivity study between targeted areas allowed a more thorough understanding of emotional circuitry involved in the affective reaction resulted from propaganda exposure. The data will be used for an additional study using response times, eye tracking, pupilometry, electroencephalographic data, galvanic skin response.


Figure 9. Connectivity study regarding the strength of the anatomical connection between activated areas mentioned in our experiment.

We consider that a central aim of the informational conflict was the extension of the psychological effects of fear in the absence of real stimuli (such as the physical proximity to the conflict areas or a real danger) and the extension of a halo effect on the entire Ukrainian population, especially in the areas situated far away from the conflict (western part on Ukraine). The prolonged effect of fear and uncertainty generates a chronic state of anxiety that interfere with the individual capacity of psychological resilience leading to a depletion effect and lack of coping mechanisms. Other psychological consequences of the informational war could be the regress to a psychological phenotype of primary resilience, ancestral, pre-societal; the self-isolation of the individual from society, placing himself in anonymity, detaching himself from any resilience social network; the alteration of perception – the ubiquitous presence of the (hyperbolized) aggressor – erasing the demarcation line between reality and imaginary from the mind of the target; submission, abandonment of defense capabilities, the necessity for consensus with the aggressor.

The purpose of our study is to help clarify the functional substrate of the psychological mechanisms involved in shaping attitudes and the conversion of attitudes into robust behavioral modification after repeated exposure to propaganda messages. Neuroscientific studies can further deciphere the manner in which attitudinal changes can vary in intensity, speed of change, resistance to change and resilience. We also consider this proof-of-concept study to be an argument that is sustaining our hypothesis that modern informational war can be used as a degradation weapon. The need of new metrics and methods of understanding in real time the complex psychological effects (individual, targeted audience, whole society) that a concentrated media campaign can produce it was also stressed in our paper. We hope that further development of this study in 2017 will offer a better insight that eventually will lead to better countermeasures against hybrid and asymmetric threats.



   Figure 10. Images from our study (in development) about the psychological impact of the informational conflict.



  • Ilie Bădescu, Tratat de geopolitică, Editura Mica Valahie, Bucureşti, 2004.
  • Filip Bardzi ski, The Concept of the ‘New Soviet Man’ As a Eugenic Project: Eugenics in Soviet Russia after World War II, Ethics in Progress, Vol. 4, No. 1, 57-81, 2013 can be visited online at http://ethicsinprogress.org/?p=1086 .




Special thanks to Mr. Daniel Dinu and The Q Agency staff for their active support.

O versiune anterioară a acestui articol a fost prezentată in cadrul seminarului NATO Advanced Research Workshop “Countering Hybrid Threats: Lessons Learned from Ukraine”, desfașurat între 28-29 septembrie 2015, București și se află publicat în volumul manifestării – „Countering Hybrid Threats: Lessons Learned from Ukraine”.

[1] We mention a few of the actions assigned to Ukrainians with the purpose of victimization, stigmatization, dehumanization: killing the Polish officers in Katyn forest, testimonies of some doctors, according to which the injured individuals in Eastern Ukraine have been victims of torture and harsh treatments, and pharmaceutical mix with psychotropic effects were used by the Ukrainian soldiers, thus provoking behavioral alterations, such as amplifying aggressiveness, sadism, lack of rational thinking and compassion, etc., resulting in the killing of children and elderly, or using them as human shields, drug, arms and human organs trafficking, etc.

[2] The remark of the American congressman Mike Rogers, president of Subcommittee for Strategic Forces within the Committee for Armed Services of the Representatives is worth mentioning; he declared during the news coverage of NBS Meet the Press that “Mr. Putin goes to sleep believing the is Peter the Great and wakes up the next day considering himself Stalin” (23rd of March 2014).

3We can imagine from now on the scenario according to which two years from now, Vladimir Putin will celebrate 100 years from the Great Revolution of October, his quality of uncontested leader and heir of the communist system.

4Cuba is mentioned in the Russian propaganda due to its historical openness towards USA (in matters of diplomacy, economy, science and politics) and implicitly, a decrease of the Russian influence, especially in military-informative domain. Placing strategic weaponry and corresponding vectors in Crimea would create a similar situation (at least symbolic) with the Cuban Crisis, with Eastern Europe and Ukraine as most likely targets (reiteration of the classic “chess game” of the Cold War). The subject can also serve as an argument for consolidating the defensive in these areas.

5Transhumanism – is an international cultural and intellectual movement with the goal of fundamentally transforming the human condition by eventually developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities. In the analysed context, we mention the fact in Russia there is a growing trans humanistic movement, usually involving elites (ex. billionaire Dmitri Itskov), but also the fact that this ideological current is more and more politicized, trying to define an ideological matrix which will unite both philosophical ideas with Christian origin (conservatory, socialist, neo-Marxist) with technological sub-currents (immortality, singularity, etc.) Another example is the US, where there is a transhumanist party, whose president – Zoltan Istvan Gyurco – announced his intention to candidate to presidential elections in 2016.

[6] A fragment of Vladimir Putin’s speech, sustained publicly on 18th of March 2014, on the occasion of annexation of Crimea: “Crimea is a unique fusion of the cultures and traditions of various peoples. In this, it resembles Russia as a whole, where over the centuries not a single ethnic group has disappeared. Russians and Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, and representatives of other nationalities have lived and worked side by side in Crimea, each retaining their own distinct identity, tradition, language, and faith.”

[7] A series of historical arguments can be found in Vladimir Putin’s speech addressed to Duma, on the occasion of ratifying the annexation of Crimea (18th of March 2014): “In Crimea, literally everything is imbued with our common history and pride. Here is ancient Chersonesus, where the holy Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of turning to Orthodoxy predetermined the shared cultural, moral, and civilizational foundation that unites the peoples of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. In Crimea are the graves of Russian soldiers, whose bravery brought Crimea in 1783 under Russian rule. Crimea is also Sevastopol, a city of legends and of great destinies, a fortress city, and birthplace of the Russian Black Sea fleet. Crimea is Balaklava and Kerch, Malakhov Kurgan and Sapun Ridge [major battle sites during the Crimean War and World War II]. Each one of these places is sacred for us, symbols of Russian military glory and unprecedented valor.”

[8] Two notable examples are the TV channel Russia Today, which broadcasts in three international languages (English, Arabic, Spanish – including in USA) and Sputnik News, which broadcasts in 30 languages.

[9] Mention a few calendaristic references regarding elections in certain countries involved or affected by the conflict: USA (November 2016), United Kingdom (May 2015), France (May 2017), Netherlands (March 2017), Italy (February 2018), Austria (April 2016), Sweden (September 2018), Slovakia (March 2016), Romania (December 2016), Iran (March 2016).

[10] In which degree the offensive component of the propaganda, focused on their own troops, has an important part in generating and maintaining emotional state and motivational reasoning that sustain combativeness and loyalty of the troops (for both sides)? Considering the prolonged Russian tradition (tsarist, Communist) of using propaganda as a (strategic) manipulation instrument, we can ask ourselves with what efficiency is it used for motivating the pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine? What are the additional means (theoretical, observed) that contribute to conveying messages and amplifying effects, so as to generate a critical mass within the society? (psychotropic substances, psycho-ethnological component, political and financial benefits, blackmail, etc.)


*Cristian Barna is Associate professor, Faculty of Sociology and Social Work, University of Bucharest

Cosmin Dugan is expert at the Black Sea University Foundation